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Authors: Jean Brashear

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“Daddy,” Judith called from behind him.

He turned. “Hi, sweetheart.”

“Wow. What’s put that gleam in your eye?” Then her face fell. “I imagine I could guess.”

He resisted a sigh. Real life was often overrated, he decided. Daydreaming was much more fun. “How are you doing today?” he asked instead.

She brightened. Brandished a sheaf of papers. “Here—this is for you. Glen and I finished late last night, but I wanted to look it over one more time before I showed you.”

He took the papers. “What is it?” Afraid he knew.

Her glow dimmed a bit, but she stood straight and tall, resembling, he suspected, no one more than himself. “It’s an outline of the offer for the Hotel Marchand.”

“Honey, I—”

“You said you’d look at it. It makes total sense and could be a great deal for Regency.” Her expression was both ruthless and earnest. Shaky pride and a touch of defiance.

He’d be churlish to reject it out of hand. “All right.” He bought time. “It may not be today, though. I have a full slate of meetings.”

Disappointment chased over her features. “Tomorrow, then. Unless you get extra time today. Or tonight.”

He’d be with Anne tonight, but that probably wasn’t the best news he could deliver at the moment. His heart went out to his wounded child, who was struggling to make a fresh start. To make him proud of her; it wasn’t her fault she’d chosen a project with a terrible conflict inherent in it.

He found a smile for her. “You’ve worked hard on this.”

“I don’t mind hard work, Daddy. You’ve provided an excellent example of what can come of it.” She looked shy as a fawn, and the years suddenly fell away.
Daddy, I got my report card, and see the As? Daddy, would you come watch my Christmas program?

He had tried, but the very demands of that example she was touting had meant that he’d missed more of her growing up than he would have liked. But Isabel had been there for all of it, and he’d told himself that they made a great team, that through both of them, their daughter had all she needed.

Now Judith had no marriage, no children and no mother. Only him.

“I promise I’ll get to it at the first opportunity.” Though how on earth he would let her down easy was beyond him at the moment.

Then inspiration hit. If he expanded her arena of opportunities, maybe this offer wouldn’t be so important to her. “Honey, I wonder if you’d be interested in a new project, one I’d really like your take on.”

He saw pride transform her. “What is it?”

“Are you free to make a trip in my place? To the Dallas property?”

She nodded. “How soon?”

“Tomorrow, if you could manage. The day after, if not.”

“Of course. What is it you need from me?”

He indicated his office with his head. “Come on in, and I’ll get you up to speed on it.”

There was a spring to her step that he hadn’t seen since her return. He acknowledged to himself that shifting her attention was his initial motivation, and postponing the urgency to respond on this offer she’d drafted wasn’t far behind.

But he was also becoming more impressed by the day at the woman Judith could be when not bowed down by the failure of her marriage or searching for a new direction in her life.

She was heir to all that he’d built, and she was a smart woman. She’d wanted to build a separate life before, but now she was here. She could choose to own the company and let others run it, but if she discovered that she wanted to do more than deposit her checks, he would be a happy man.

“I love you, sweetheart,” he said.

The smile she cast at him was brilliant. “I love you, too, Daddy.”

He followed her inside.

 

“M
AMA
?”

Anne looked up quickly, caught by the concern in Charlotte’s tone. She pitched her voice low so only Charlotte could hear. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. No.” Charlotte shook her head. “Maybe. Do you have a second to talk?”

“Of course.” Anne abandoned the napkins she’d been folding while chatting with the waitstaff. Over the years, she’d discovered that she learned much more about the operational details of the hotel by getting down in the trenches with her staff than by reading all the reports in the world. She’d been able to head off many a problem by doing so, and the time spent always seemed to boost the morale of the staff. Her manner and bearing could convey a confidence that spoke louder than all the pep talks in meetings she could hold. The hotel employee grapevine could be an owner’s greatest asset—or a bane. Rumors spread faster than an internet virus, and she knew that recent events in the hotel had everyone concerned.

Charlotte was doing a great job—all her daughters were—but they were also strapped for time and working far too hard, especially her eldest. Actions like this were a small, quiet way Anne could appear to be doing nothing taxing while making a difference, however slight.

And these were her people, still. Some of them had been with her since the beginning, but even the newest employee had always been greeted by Anne Marchand. Babies and marriages celebrated, family losses mourned.

No hotel management course would advise this, but it had worked for Anne for years and still would.

“Luisa, I’m sorry, but duty calls,” Anne said to the pregnant waitress beside her. “You stay off your feet for a while longer.”

“Yes, Mrs. Marchand. I swear I’m feeling fine.”

“Good.” Anne patted her hand. “We want to keep you that way. See you later, everyone.”

Farewells came from all of them. Anne waved and followed her daughter, who stopped outside and faced her.

“You are amazing, you know that?”

Anne did a double take. “Why, thank you,
chère
.”

“No, I mean it. You are the heart and soul of this hotel. You’ve done my job and still managed time for—” she pointed back to the restaurant “—that. And so much else that it’s requiring all four of us to step into your place.” Charlotte shoved a hand through her dark hair. “And you raised four children. I’m single, no kids, and I’m—”

For a second, Charlotte looked as though she would cry, something very out of character.

“Oh, honey, you’re exhausted.” At Charlotte’s impatient shake of her head, Anne persisted. “Come with me.”

“Where?” A far cry from normal, Charlotte allowed herself to be urged along.

“My quarters. You need to put your feet up. Have a good cry.”

That her headstrong, always-together daughter only made a token refusal worried Anne more than anything else could. She remained silent until they were safely inside her apartment. “Sit down,
doucette.
I’ll make us some tea.”

“You should have been
une anglaise,
Mama.” Charlotte’s laugh was a little shaky. “It isn’t French to drink so much tea.”

“You’re surviving on coffee,” Anne responded as she
put water in the kettle. “And anyway, tea is all I know how to make.”

Her daughter’s amusement wasn’t forced this time. “Papa tried to teach you to cook. I remember.”

Anne turned on the burner. Remy had insisted that he needed at least a small kitchen in their quarters, though he had everything he could want downstairs. “Yes, and the only reason we remained married was that he finally accepted that it was impossible.” She readied the teapot and cups, then crossed to her daughter. “Now what’s this about? You are doing a magnificent job, Charlotte, and your circumstances are far different than mine were.”

“You built this place, Mama. When everyone thought you’d fail. How can that not be harder than what I’m facing?”


Exactement.
We had nowhere to go but up, your papa and I. And I didn’t build this place myself. I had him, and we were young, and…” Memories flooded over her, but she shook her head and focused on her child. “It was very different, that’s all. We grew into what this place is. Holding on when you’re at the top is always harder. Even without all the little disasters that have erupted so close together.” She patted Charlotte’s knee. “Oh,
bébé,
I am so sorry you must carry the weight of this on your shoulders. I’m feeling fine. You must allow me to resume more of my former duties.”

“So I can feel even less competent because even with my sisters helping, I still can’t get the job done?”

Anne ignored the whistling kettle. “You
are
getting
the job done. And your sisters are only replacing employees we already had.” She had to remember that Charlotte despised weakness in herself and resisted any form of pity. “I still believe a good cry would do you a world of good, but if you’re determined to refuse, then—” She rose to silence the boiling water.

“We have another offer.”

Anne’s hand froze on the burner knob. “What?” She removed the kettle by rote and busied herself warming the pot, then spooning tea leaves inside and adding water. “
Les cochons
backed down or threatened us further?” She utilized the unflattering term they’d tagged on the odious Corbin brothers.

“Neither. This is a whole new offer from another party.”

Anne understood why Charlotte’s voice was flat. This meant that news of their straits had gotten out. The feeding frenzy would begin. She kept her own voice carefully neutral. “From whom?”

“I don’t know. It’s in the name of a trustee.”

“A competitor, then.” Using a trustee to ensure anonymity was a common practice to give the buyer an advantage, because the seller couldn’t ascribe motives or negotiate based on knowledge of the buyer’s situation, its strengths or weaknesses. “How bad is it?”

“That’s the problem. It’s a good offer. Not generous, but fair.”

“I see.” Anne lifted the tray and carried the tea service to the coffee table. “Good enough you think we should accept it?”

“Oh, Mama.” Charlotte’s eyes were much younger
than her years now, and aching. “I don’t know.” She glanced away. “I just keep wondering what Papa would say….” She was silent for endless moments. Then she looked back at Anne, and a single tear crept down her cheek. “He’d be so disappointed in me. I promised him once that if anything ever happened to him, I’d take care of you. Now—” Her hand fluttered ineffectually.

Anne set the tray down with a thud. “Remy Marchand, if you were here now…” She put her hands on her hips. “I could strangle the man. He had no right to place that burden on you. I am perfectly capable of—”

“He loved you, Mama. Worshipped the ground you walked on.”

The truth took the wind from her sails. “I adored him, too,” she murmured. “So much so that the heart was torn out of me when he died.” She’d gone on because she had to, had grown a skin over the bleeding ache, turned a soft crab shell into bones. Slowly found an echo of joy where she’d once known blazing rapture.

It was a shock to realize that she was heart-whole again. Thanks to William.

Another shock to know that her first impulse was to tell William about this latest offer. Use him as a backboard to bounce ideas off, until she could settle in her own mind what was the right thing to do.

The whole notion was disturbing. And wonderful.

She’d ponder that. Later. For now, she had a daughter to care for. With a new strength that she understood derived at least in part from knowing she wasn’t alone if she didn’t want to be anymore, she sat up straighter.
“Tell me the details.” She placed one hand on her daughter’s. “We’ll get through this, I promise. And whatever we decide will be fine with your father. I’m not the only one he adored, you know.”

Charlotte sniffed, then accepted the tissue Anne proffered. Blew her nose quietly. “Okay.” She reached for her teacup. “Okay, here’s the deal.”

And she began to talk.

CHAPTER NINE

W
ILLIAM WALKED INTO
the Hotel Marchand and saw it with new eyes. Conflicted ones.

“Good evening, Mr. Armstrong. May I ring Mrs. Marchand for you?” the concierge asked. The greeting couldn’t be faulted, warm and welcoming, yet with a clear note to William that eyes were watching, that Anne was a treasure to be guarded.

He cast a quick glance at the name tag. “Luc, is it?”

A nod. “Luc Carter, sir. At your service.”

With a newly awakened consciousness, thanks to his daughter’s very thorough report, he noted items that even his veteran hotelier’s scrutiny had skimmed over—recent visits here had been all about his interest in Anne and not the tiny details that made the difference between a good hotel and great one.

Intelligent, engaged employees
—check.

A faultless first impression
—check. Anne’s touch was everywhere, in the warm gold walls, the intriguing mix of French and Spanish antiques with cushy sofas and chairs in shades of cream and red. Lush greenery dotted the inside and grew thick and full in the court
yard. Elegance and comfort, grace and welcome, reflecting the woman herself.

“Sir?” Carter asked, still patiently waiting in the manner of a superb concierge. As if he had all the time in the world for your smallest wish, even if he were juggling a killer load of demands.

“She’s expecting me, but if procedure demands that you call her first, please feel free.”

Luc smiled and picked up the phone. “Thank you, sir. Only a matter of routine.”

William caught the faintest flicker of concern in the man’s expression. Given the chain of small and not-so-small disasters that had plagued this hotel, William could only be grateful for Luc’s cordial insistence. “Certainly.”

Luc’s call was answered and, after a brief exchange, ended. “Mrs. Marchand asks you to come up.” His eyes twinkled. “And in her own gracious way, she encouraged me not to bother you with this procedure again.”

William had to grin. “That’s my Anne. Could tell off the devil himself and make it sound like an invitation to high tea.”

Luc smothered his own smile. “Yes, sir. Have a good evening, sir.”

William saluted with the bouquet of lilacs he’d had flown in just this afternoon. “Thank you.”

“Luc!” A woman in her late forties with a figure tending toward the Rubenesque crossed the foyer and left the arms of her escort to twirl right in front of Luc’s desk. “Look! See what your amazing Monique did?”

“Mrs. Davis.” Smoothly, he clasped her hand and bowed over it. “You are a vision.”

“Frank, this is the young man I told you about. He saved me.” She was a dervish, whirling back toward Luc. “Frank got the promotion this afternoon, as it turns out. We’re celebrating with his new boss tonight, and my luggage still hasn’t arrived. You are an angel, Luc. An absolute angel.”

“I was happy to help,” Luc demurred. “Mr. Davis, may I offer my congratulations?”

“Thanks. And thanks for what you did for her. She can’t stop raving about the massage the hotel supplied.” He grinned. “That dress cost me a pretty penny, but it’s worth it. Looks like the girl I married.”

“We want our guests to feel pampered.”

“Worried about the price before we came, I have to admit,” the man grumbled.

“But we’ll be back, Frank, won’t we?” Mrs. Davis trilled.

“Good place,” her husband acknowledged.

“And I’ve already called half my friends to tell them what you did for me,” she said.

Customers who want to return
—check. Who are made to feel special.

William kept going toward the elevator. The signs of wear were subtle but creeping in. An infusion of cash was needed, no question.

But Anne still had a jewel here, even if its setting was slightly tarnished. His hotels were smoothly-run and ex
cellent values, but all of them were huge, designed to capitalize on economies of scale.

His daughter was right—and wrong. Combining this hotel with his would be more efficient, true.

But the Hotel Marchand was unique, and any encroachment into the magic Anne—and Remy, he conceded, but mostly Anne—had created would eat at the core of what made the place special.

When he was younger, he’d been bent on more and bigger. At this point in his life, he’d learned the value of a quiet gem: a moment of peace, a touch of dew on a flower. A small, exquisite painting or a good bottle of wine he’d never heard of before.

A woman like Anne. Except there was no
like.
She was one of a kind, a pearl beyond price.

He was surprised to realize, as he approached her door, that he was…nervous.

When was the last time he’d felt that odd jitter? When something had been important enough that he feared losing it?

Amazing. And…fun.

Then Anne opened her door, and all his musings ground to a halt.

“Hi,” she said. “Oh! Lilacs.” She reached out, and he surrendered them.

Along with his heart.

 

I
N THE MINUTES
between Luc’s call and William’s arrival, Anne had considered yet another change of clothing. She could no longer remember what had made
her so bold this morning. Couldn’t feel that tug of heat, sweet and potent, that had nearly landed her in William’s bed in broad daylight.

She was too old for this. Not a phrase—or a mindset—she favored, but completely appropriate, nonetheless.

It was too late for plastic surgery or a girdle. Too—

Terrifying. She was petrified of what she might have promised without using the words. Of the expectations he would bring to the evening. She wasn’t ready. Would never be ready to get naked with a new man.

She had been on her way to the phone to beg Luc to fend off William, to proffer an excuse because she was—

A tap on her door.

A coward, after all.

I can’t date, I can’t date, I can’t—

Then she’d opened the door to lilacs.

“Oh!” She bent to sniff the blossoms, fragrant with their sweet, flirty scent. “Where on earth did you find them? I swear they’re the best smell on earth. I’d only read about them before I went to college further north, and then—”

“Hello, Anne.” With a smile, William bent to kiss her, and she turned just enough that his kiss landed on her cheek. “You look amazing.” He scanned the lines of the scarlet silk sheath she was certain she should have bought for Charlotte instead of herself.

“Oh. Well, I—” She turned away. “I’ll just get these in water.” She put distance between them as fast as possible.

“May I come in?” he asked from the doorway.

Oh, sweet heaven. What was she doing? “Of course.
I’m sorry. I—” She glanced up and met his cheery gaze. She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t you stand there and be amused at me.”

His eyebrows rose. “All right.” He entered. Closed the door quietly.

She found a vase. Put the flowers in water. Focused on each stem as if the fate of the world depended on its placement.

“How was your day?” he asked, coming toward her.

She stepped sideways. “Fine.”

“Anne, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” But the concern in his voice nearly broke her. She’d put on a brave face for Charlotte, but all afternoon, she’d been arguing with herself as she went about her activities. Looking at every aspect of the hotel and wondering how she would ever say goodbye when she had memories attached to every square inch, every single person.

One stalk broke. “Oh,
merde
—” She dropped the rest of them on the counter as she battled the urge to cry. “William, I don’t think I’m able to do this.” She steadied her tone. “Perhaps we could reschedule or—”

Hands settled on her shoulders. Turned her. “Come here,” he said in a voice so warm and comforting that she couldn’t find it in her to resist, though it changed nothing.

Then his arms came around her, and he pulled her into his chest.

It felt wonderful, but she held part of herself back, knowing the next step would be for him to demand that she explain, and even though she was almost certain he
would understand at least part of her agony, he wouldn’t know the worst of it, that she, not Charlotte, had failed and would lose, for all of them, the place that was not just a business or a livelihood—

But a home. Their home, the only one the girls had known. And their history, the one Remy had hoped would endure for generations.

Remy’s mark on the world, erased. It was a letting-go of him nearly as cruel as watching that coffin slide into the crypt. Remy and his legacy would live on only in their hearts, while others would forget all too soon.

But William surprised her. He didn’t ask anything. Say anything.

He only held her. A refuge she shouldn’t accept, didn’t deserve.

He bent his head to hers. “Hey,” he whispered. “Want me to cancel our reservations?”

She turned her face to the side but slid her arms around his waist. “Yes. No.”

She tried to draw away, but he wouldn’t let her. “Shh, it’s okay. They’ll hold the table if you’d like to think about it awhile.”

They probably would. One of the perks of power. She leaned back, met his scrutiny. “I don’t know what I want. Maybe you should just go. Call someone else.”

He smiled only slightly. “I threw away my little black book.”

She could drown in those blue eyes. “That might not have been wise. Have the garbage men come yet?”

He laughed then.

“It’s not funny. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“It doesn’t matter. Just hang on to me for now. You don’t have to decide anything or be anything but yourself.”

“I’m sixty-two years old, and I changed clothes four times this evening. I still haven’t found the right outfit.”

He scanned her without letting her go. Waggled his eyebrows. “Looks good to me.”

“What’s underneath won’t.” Then she sucked in a breath of horror that she’d said it aloud.

To his credit, he didn’t laugh. Instead, he picked up one hand and laced their fingers. “Would it help you to know that I nearly didn’t show?”

“Really?”

He smiled. “No.”

When she tried to yank her hand away, he only tightened his grip and kissed the pad of her thumb. She inhaled sharply, and he nipped lightly with his teeth, then grazed a path down to the mound at its base.

She felt it all the way to her insides, as though he’d hit on a direct connection. She couldn’t quite stifle a tiny moan. “William, I’m serious.”

Heated breath crept over her palm. She wanted to yank her hand away. Wanted more to savor the warmth spreading from one tiny patch of flesh into the furthest recesses of her body.

“So am I.” The vibration of his voice sent more ripples over her skin.

Dear, sweet heaven.

He bent to the inside of her elbow. One slow drag of his tongue over the tenderest part had her breath hitching.

“I’m not playing,” she protested.

He crooked her a grin. “Too bad. I am.” He straightened, only to lean again, this time with his mouth brushing the pulse point at her neck.

My heart pounded
, books always said. Had it ever been quite like this?

Then suddenly, he straightened. Stepped back, still holding her hand. “Ready for dinner?” he asked with the tone of a lazy tiger, if one could talk. “Or shall we order in?”

“What?”

His smile was both tease and temptation. “Are you hungry?”

“For what?”

His laugh was a little strained. “If you don’t want me making love to you this second,” he said as he drew her toward the door, “we have to go. Now.”

She followed, still trying to get her legs to function, all the while wondering if food was that important. “Okay. If you think we should.”

He whirled on her then, and those blue eyes weren’t laughing anymore. They were dark as navy. “What I think is that we should climb in bed for a solid week and tell the world to go stuff itself. But since Mardi Gras is ten days away, and you would never forgive yourself, I’ll settle for postponing. Barely.”

“Oh.” Her head was still a little light. “Of course, you’re right. We have no business going to bed together with so much else going on.” All too quickly, reality flooded in. “As a matter of fact, maybe I
should just stay.” She wheeled and focused on the remaining lilacs.

“I didn’t say postpone making love, darling. Only the solid week of it.”

“Um—” She stabbed in the last stalk, finding herself with equal parts relief and fascination.

“Forgot to worry about what was under your clothes for a few minutes there, didn’t you?” He grinned. “Making love is about more than skin, sweetheart, though I do have an appetite for more of yours.”

“Oh.” She was beginning to sound like a broken record. “No lights,” she insisted.

He winked at her. “We’ll negotiate over dinner.” He tugged at her hand. “I’ll warn you that I’m reputed to be quite a shark.”

“I knew that.” Her stomach fluttered. “I’m not so bad myself,” she said.

Whistling her way past the graveyard.

 

“T
HIS IS WONDERFUL
,” Anne said. She touched the heavy silver, trailed her fingers over the blush-pink linen. Glanced around at their fellow diners and up to the ornate chandeliers as if she hadn’t experienced such luxury often in her life. “Another find of yours.” She smiled at him. “I can’t recall the last time I went even this far for dinner.” She shook her head. “As though Metairie were across the planet and not right next door.”

“It had never occurred to me before that you didn’t dine out all the time. Check out the competition.”

“Hardly. With Remy’s hands-on approach and the demands of four children…”

“And the little matter of a hotel to run,” he offered. “I never cease to be amazed at all you’ve juggled, Anne.” He picked up her hand. Nibbled on her fingers. “You’ve been the poster girl for having it all.”

“Not really.” A delightful bit of color rose into her cheeks.

“I have no idea where you got the energy, yet you made it look effortless.”

“I spent years dreaming of a week to do nothing but sleep.” She made a joke of it.

He wasn’t buying. “You got your wish a few months ago in the hospital. Scared the hell out of me.”

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